Friday, November 29, 2013

What we talk about when we talk about Murakami

This really interesting article in Publishing Perspectives touched on something that I noted when I was in Asia last month: Murakami's incredible influence on the cultural life and relations in between Asian countries.

His books were everywhere in Taipei: in bookstore windows, in people's hands, on tables in cafes. I also noticed that whenever anyone mentioned jazz, they'd also mention whiskey. That's a Murakami connection. People I spoke to knew his works, his short stories and his novels, and could speak about them with authority and in detail.

Many Westerners, though, are surprised to hear that in much of Asia, Murakami is not considered a "literary" writer at all and many pooh-pooh him as being a popular writer.

It's significant that he's not drinking green tea.
In Japan especially, the gap between high culture and pop culture is still very much pronounced though it's slowly changing. Because of this, I think, serious writers and cultural workers tend to look askance at Murakami's work, both for its content and for the language he uses (very intentional colloquial writing is what he has long been known for in Japan: one of my big gripes, in fact, is how translators try to mimic this when they translate him into English: Kafka on the Shore was, in my view, almost unreadable due to this issue).

Yet he's a writer who has enormously broad appeal: in Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and many other countries (not to mention Quebec: his books translated into French are probably some of the most commonly seen books on the metro).

Yet as the writer notes in the piece linked above, it's ironic that though Murakami can bring Asian countries together to overcome all the complexities and tensions of past conflicts and current political wrangling, he writes very little about Asia as a whole. Certainly Japan is there but not as much as one might assume given that many of his works are set there.

This is precisely why many foreigners (meaning non-Japanese) and particularly Westerners like Murakami: he is like "Japan-light," an easy writer to access for those interested in Japan or Asia but not willing to go the extra mile to really explore its literature, history or culture in any complex or subtle way.

Plus, he's a decent storyteller and that means something, too...

Thursday, November 28, 2013

THANKFULNESS by Czeslaw Milosz


You gave me gifts, God-Enchanter.
I give you thanks for good and ill.
Eternal light in everything on earth.
As now, so on the day after my death.

                              - Czeslaw Milosz

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Amy Tan and Eileen Chang

One of the first novels about China that I can remember reading is Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. I loved it. Then again, I was only  15 or 16 when it came out and I remember getting a hold of a copy of it at the public library. I had had no experience or thought of China and in the town where I am from, China is about as far away as one can be culturally.

So the book opened up a new world for me and at that impressionable age, attracted me to all things Chinese. Later I would live in Shanghai and Hong Kong for years, learning Mandarin and writing a good deal about contemporary Chinese literature.

I largely forgot about Amy Tan: I read A Kitchen God's Wife years after my first encounter with her but I hardly remember it. China was always portrayed rather tragically by Tan. When the film version of The Joy Luck Club was released, I saw it in the theater but was disappointed because it fell so far short of the book.

All of this to say that I picked up her latest book last week and have been reading it. I have to say that I have mixed feelings about it. And I'm not sure if it's just my critical abilities have developed a lot since I was 15 or if it's a flawed book though I'm reading it actively and will finish it. One problem I often have with "historical fiction" (a term I am using loosely), particularly told in the first person, is that the narrator is too often a modern figure, "translating" an older culture for us in the modern world. So the limitations of that modern point of view underline all the analysis and editorializing about the historical period. The narrator of Tan's new book (The Valley of Amazement) seems like a kid from the 1970s USA trapped in the world of 1920s Shanghai: her insights, her feelings. It's also clearly told from an adult's point of view since the insights are uneven: the things she understands are odd (the complex machinations of her dragon-like mother who runs a brothel are crystal clear for a 7 year old). Her voice is irritating. Maybe that's what Tan intends since she (Violet) is supposed to be a spoiled child but it's when we move out of her voice into another character's the the book gets interesting.

There are sections which are absolutely riveting. When Violet, the main American character, is "tutored" by an ageing courtesan, the story comes alive. It's fascinating all the rules and complex courting rituals that courtesans followed in order to be successful. And make no mistake, it was merely a matter of survival, no hedonistic impulses were part of the equation (for the woman, at any rate). The amount of research that must have gone into this is something I can't stop thinking about as I read these long sections about clothes, fashion, envy, increasing one's reputation, attracting men, sexual prowess.

What strikes me is how similar the rules of our "celebrity culture" are similar to the world of being a good courtesan.

It's the main character's voice that I find hard to bear. Why is she so obsessed with her mother's love? This seems like a modern invention, particularly given the fact that in traditional Chinese society, parents never tell their kids "I love you" (True, Violet is half-American and her mother is completely American but Violet has grown up in China with her mother as just about the only influence from American culture and not overly warm, etc.). This deep-seated insecurity seems very much like a modern invention to me (not that Chinese kids didn't want their parents' love but they didn't obsess over it). Tan thanks Lisa See in her acknowledgements, a mediocre writer whose work suffers from many of the same flaws as this one does.

I am a big believer that one can like popular fiction and still be a "good" reader but I am not really getting this book. Oddly though it has hooked me (often I won't even finish books I am enjoying). And it makes me wonder if I should re-read The Joy Luck Club to find out if it's as good as I remember. Or perhaps it's better if I leave it and let it remain in the past.

But where Tan shines is, oddly, when she reaches back and shows us this world from a Chinese point of view (not a Westerner's point of view). In these beautiful passages I am reminded of Han Bangqing's novel (translated by Eileen Chang), The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai. It's a much more interesting book (though perhaps less so to contemporary North Americans since the narration is not exactly what we are used to).

In general, if one wants to get a real insight into China, read Eileen Chang. Her narrators are truly complex and fascinating. Lust, Caution is at once suspenseful, erotic, and complex. Love in a Fallen City is painful, beautiful and gives us Shanghai of the 1920s in a much more believable, less individualistic way that reflects a truer reality of the city. (even the reality of today though the book was written in the 1930s and 40s).

I've written about Eileen Chang before but I come back to her writing again and again, always finding something new, always enjoying my time in the worlds she creates.

I've often heard people say to me that they're not interested in China. I guess on one hand, I can understand that since all we hear in the media is negative stories about it: how dirty it is, how corrupt, how chaotic and crowded, etc. All of this is true. But China is an incredibly complex, amazing, and yes beautiful place with thousands of years of history. I find it endlessly fascinating (and yes also frustrating, nationalistic, self-centered), particularly these visions of Shanghai in the early part of the 20th century.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

QWF Awards 2013

The QWF awards banquet last night was wonderful as usual. But what struck me as I watched the show was how tight the English writing community is. Not coming from Quebec, it's a community that means a good deal to me personally. But to a writer who is writing to his or her peers and hopes for an audience, one could hardly hope for a more enthusiastic and talented group of people.

I appreciate how translators are given a prize each year. Translation is an under-appreciated art and one that is vital in our world today, literary or otherwise. Donald Winkler won the Cole Foundation Translation Prize for his translation of Pierre Nepveu's book of poems The Major Verbs. This is really an amazing collection and Nepveu is a poet whose work I've only recently discovered (though he's one of Quebec's best-known poets). Winkler praised the local community of translators, including his partner, Sheila Fischman.

Paul Blackwell, always dapper in his bowtie and beard, won the YA award for his book Undercurrent. He is charming and friendly though I missed his acceptance speech. I read one of his YA detective novels a few years' back and thought it was fantastic.

Adam Leith Gollner won the Mavis Gallant non-fiction prize for his book Immortality and told a charming story about having oysters with Mavis Gallant in Paris. His book's been at the top of my list since the late summer when I saw him being interviewed by Josh Dulgin at Pop Montreal.

The Concordia first book prize went to Andrew Szymanski, a writer I didn't know about (I
know well the other two books competing in that category). He was the comic highlight of the night, though I think unintentionally...

I was rooting for a friend who was nominated for the AM Klein Poetry Prize, but the winner, Ken Howe, was really funny and gracious.

And, of course, Saleema Nawaz won the Hugh Maclennan Prize for her book Bone & Bread, lovely novel that captivated many earlier this year when it came out. No surprise there.

The QWF banquet really is the highlight of the fall in the literary world of English Montreal. And it's always so great to see people coming out to support their peers, colleagues and friends. And I am proud to be around so many incredibly talented writers, translators, editors and literary professionals.

The Corona Theatre on Notre-Dame: an A+ venue!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sam Shepard

You know how you get kind of obsessed with a writer and try to read as much as you can in one fell swoop?

Lately, for me that writer has been Sam Shepard.

I've read him before and in the spring, I had some very interesting conversations with fans of his work that I met at a few work functions. Over the summer, I picked up a play here, a collection of stories there until I had quite a nice collection which I started reading through in the last couple of months.

I am just blown away. Funny how when you read something in your early 20s, things can just fly by you. Something about re-reading him now in my early 40s has opened up a whole new world for me. The distances between us all, the ways we disconnect, the ways we try to reach out, the pain of isolation.

Also, since I am originally from the Western US, perhaps his setting felt too close to me when I first approached Shepard years ago. Now that time and distance fall in between, the west is almost exotic, like a song that's vaguely familiar but whose melody and words I've long forgotten.

His collection Great Dream of Heaven is one of those books I intentionally have been reading bit by bit because I don't want it to end. Some of the pieces are short, some just two pages, none more than 10, but they are incredibly self-contained with complex snippets of characters that stay with you for days afterwards.

It strikes me, too, that his writing has fallen out of fashion in certain ways because we no longer find it fashionable to explore issues of class in our art. Or at least not in the dominant culture. And it's not done in any overtly political way: but his stories contains lives of those on the margins, living hand to mouth in small towns and cities in the west.

The premise he starts with is often simple: a woman driving through the midwest with her mother's ashes in an urn in the passenger seat, encountering an injured hawk along the highway. A conversation between a woman being evicted for having too many cats and someone trying to help her. A young boy interviewing his father about the 1980s for a school project. A customer in a fast-food restaurant inquiring about the simple yet complex philosophy behind a painted sign at the counter.

Yet despite the simple settings and lives, he richly creates these complex series of thoughts, never pretentiously, somehow putting on the page things we've all felt or thought or pondered.

His plays, too: Buried Child is moving, mysterious, deeply symbolic, painful.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

New comics series: Manifest Destiny

Been loving this new series by Chris Dingess, called Manifest Destiny.

Based on the travels of Lewis & Clark, the first one in the series hints at supernatural beings and creatures that lived out in the wild west, creatures that Lewis & Clark secretly described and notated in a classified journal only for the eyes of Jefferson.

There's also intrigue and "bad guys" that have infiltrated the Louis & Clark group.

I look forward to seeing how this one develops.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Surveyor's Notebook, Summer 1969

I'm crossing a field that doesn't belong to me, measuring out clumps of condemned trees and tracing heart-breaking outlines as yet unseen by those who live here. When, a surgeon without a scalpel, at five o'clock I walk away through the long leafy shadows, with the light itself stretched tight enough to strum the nerve chords, down my back I sense the looks that kill. I've hiked down into the shelter of a valley and I pause, uncertain, among sandy hillocks, listening under the evening clouds to hear where the first distress calls will come from. Silent and small as a star, a plane passes over and I watch its vapour trail striping the sky, chalky like a child's drawing. Up there, strangers are travelling. One day, my friends, their hordes will descend amongst you. I'm still alone as I tramp towards the motel that awaits me for the night, an unknown traveller prepared to leave his sadness on the doorstep, dreaming of the dry quiet of barns filled with hay and flies.
                                              -- Pierre Nepveau (translated by Judith Cowan). From Mirabel, Signal 2004

Friday, November 1, 2013

Blue Met and I Musici: The Transfigured Night

In our constant attempt to try new things, we've partnered with I Musici Montreal to present a concert tonight on the work of Benjamin Britten and Rimbaud. Preceded by a talk between I Musici Director, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, and our own Marie-AndréeLamontagne, the evening will present works of the night:

Rimbaud in La nuit transfigurée
Captured in four masterpieces! The first, one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's most amusing serenades, was composed as a conversation of sorts between two small orchestras. Courtesy of Dominique Labelle, the music of Benjamin Britten then meets the poetry of Rimbaud. In the third work, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, the flight of the lark that heralds the dawn is magnificently rendered by violinist Julie Triquet. And finally, love carries the day in Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, from the groudbreaking composer's tonal period.

We're thrilled to have this chance to work together to bring Montreal the power of words through music.

La nuit transfigurée shows tonight at the Beaux Arts Museum at 8pm. The causerie starts at 7pm and will be in French.

Check out I Musici's website for all their events this seasons and to find out more about tonight's concert.